Hackensack, N.J. Pfizer Inc., the world's largest pharmaceutical company, will soon offer its medicines at discounts to the country's uninsured.
In an announcement Wednesday, Pfizer officials said the program would give people without drug coverage the same access to prices leveraged by HMOs, major corporations and other entities with large buying power.
The program, to begin next month, will be available to the uninsured population regardless of age or income, although people who make more money will receive less-extensive discounts. Uninsured families making less than $45,000 will save an average of 37 percent, the company said. The company estimated more than 60 million people -- including 17 million without drug coverage specifically in addition to 43 million lacking insurance altogether -- would be eligible.
New York-based Pfizer's sales comprise 13 percent of the U.S. market, and its products are some of the world's most widely used medicines, including Lipitor for lowering cholesterol, Celebrex for arthritis, Zoloft for depression, Zyrtec for allergies, and Norvasc for high blood pressure.
High prescription drug prices continue to rage as a major issue for citizens and politicians. Some are looking for solutions by importing lower priced drugs from Canada and other countries, or by advocating a greater governmental role in negotiating lower prices.
Such measures are loathsome to the industry, and companies have expanded their savings programs offered to low-income patients and seniors. Pfizer's focus on the broader uninsured population adds a new wrinkle.
"We're offering an American solution to an American problem," Pfizer CEO Hank McKinnell said in announcing his company's plan.
Nearly 40 percent of the uninsured population report being unable to afford medicines prescribed for them, according to Pfizer. Effective treatment, the company said, can hold down overall medical costs by preventing more expensive and otherwise preventable emergency room visits.
Pfizer held a press conference to herald its plan, touting support from advocacy organizations and politicians, including both U.S. Senators from New York -- Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles Schumer -- and New York Gov. George Pataki.
The program -- dubbed "Pfizer Pfriends" -- will offer an average of 37 percent savings, and as much as 50 percent, on all Pfizer medicines for uninsured families making less than $45,000 a year, or less than $31,000 for individuals. For those who are above those income levels, the average savings will be 15 percent, and as much as 25 percent.
As an example, Pfizer said a working father earning $41,000 a year who pays $79.58, the average retail price, for a month's supply of Lipitor at 10 milligrams will now pay $52.71.
As part of its announcement, Pfizer also expanded other drug access programs. It will increase the income requirements on its programs providing free medicines to poor patients. Now, they apply to those families receiving less than $31,000 a year, and individuals making less than $19,000, meaning 2 million more people are eligible.
Pfizer Pfriends will be a card-based program. The myriad public and private discount programs are often criticized for being either difficult to access or to understand. Pfizer said it would provide a toll-free number beginning next month with live operators to answer questions as well as a Web site to help consumers.
Pat Kelly, Pfizer's president of U.S. operations, said the program would cost Pfizer money, but would have a negligible impact to the bottom line.